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Help on Asbestos Sought

Specter’s Office Urges Ad Blitz

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is seeking a major boost for his bill to create an asbestos trust fund, even as the measure’s prospects for passage this year appear dim.

In a textbook case of Congressional players lobbying lobbyists, Specter’s office has asked industry lobbyists who support the bill to consider funding an advertising blitz backing it.

Business lobbyists were asked to consider mounting the campaign if Specter’s bill reaches the Senate floor, said sources familiar with the request. Specter’s office did not return calls for comment.

The Specter legislation, which would require businesses and insurers to pay $140 billion into a trust fund that would compensate victims of asbestos-related illness, is looking less and less likely to gain consideration by the full Senate this year, according to several lobbyists on either side of the debate.

Lobbyists now expect that it will be next year before the bill is brought to the floor. Bob Stevenson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said the measure’s prospects remain unclear.

“As with many of the bills that are out there, if it’s not related to [Hurricane] Katrina relief, if it’s not related to the appropriations process, and if it’s not related to confirming a Supreme Court nominee, no decision has been made,” he said.

One business group backing the measure said it would consider funding a campaign once the bill reaches the floor.

“If and when the bill gets to the Senate floor, the Asbestos Alliance and its kindred spirits will certainly consider such an advertising effort,” said Darren McKinney, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, which houses an alliance supporting Specter’s approach.

It is unclear whether the Asbestos Study Group, the other major business-backed coalition supporting the bill, was asked to contribute to a campaign. A spokesman for the group declined to comment.

Susan Vento, chairwoman of the Committee to Protect Mesothelioma Victims, a group that represents people made ill by asbestos, said she was disappointed by the request from Specter’s office.

“That instead of investing those dollars in appropriate settlements for families and patients, he’s asking companies to fund an ad campaign to support his bill — I’m stunned,” said Vento, widow of the late Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), who died of an asbestos-related illness.

The development comes as one of the best-funded groups opposing Specter’s bill, a loose collective of defendant companies and insurers called the Coalition for Asbestos Reform, launches a new campaign against it.

The coalition is spending $500,000 on its new blitz, featuring advertisements in newspapers inside the Beltway and nationally.

“We’re in this battle for the long term,” said Tom O’Brien, the coalition’s executive director. “We will do exactly what we think it takes to accomplish our objectives.”

He said his group launched the new effort in response to statements made late last month by Specter and his co-sponsor, Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), indicating that the bill could reach the floor in October.

None of the interest groups monitoring the debate now thinks that’s likely, but O’Brien said that, given Specter’s doggedness in pushing the bill thus far, “we wanted to be ready for any eventuality.”

Indeed, even critics give Specter credit for advancing a bill that many predicted would never make it out of committee. The Pennsylvania Republican saw to that in May, when his panel approved the measure in a 13-5 vote. Since then, in part due to a crowded Senate calendar, it has stalled.

But the bill also has suffered for its lack of support from outside groups.

Many defendant companies and most insurance companies oppose the bill, arguing they would have to contribute too much to the trust fund with no guarantee of an end to their legal liability if the fund were to run dry.

At the same time, trial lawyers are opposed, and labor unions and consumer groups are fighting it because they say the trust fund’s payouts to victims would be too meager.

That has left a narrow, but still significant, corporate constituency for Specter to lean on for help.

The Asbestos Alliance, founded by NAM, is made up of old-line manufacturers and insurers. The Asbestos Study Group was formed to represent companies who were less directly tied to their asbestos liability or had inherited it after gobbling up smaller outfits with existing problems, such as Honeywell, General Electric, Viacom and Pfizer.

Even if the bill has no shot at getting to the floor this year, supportive companies may be tapped now to maintain a sense of urgency on the issue, so it can preserve momentum into next year, said one lobbyist from a company supportive of the Specter bill.

“A great deal of pressure has got to be applied right now, even if it’s going to be brought up early next year,” the lobbyist said. “If you don’t build momentum now, the likelihood it gets out of the box then is slim.”

Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) has attracted nearly 60 co-sponsors to a measure that would provide an alternative solution to the one offered in Specter’s bill. But the House Republican leadership has indicated that it is waiting for the Senate to act first.